Richard Smith: The well known story of how Easter Islanders destroyed their island is probably wrong

In 2011, I posted an article in The BMJWill we follow Easter Islanders into extinction?It was a deeply pessimistic piece, and now I need to correct it with a more optimistic version of the story of Easter Island. (I also posted a version of the Easter Island story on my own blog.)

I must begin by explaining what I’m correcting. The “story” of Easter Island has been used by many, including Jared Diamond in his best-selling book Collapse, to illustrate how humanity is headed towards extinction. I took the story from A Short History of Progress by the Cambridge archaeologist Ronald Wright. I described the book as “pithy, witty, erudite, highly readable, full of marvellous quotes, and ultimately devastating.” I stand by all that, but my description does not include the words “true” or “correct.”

Wright’s version of the Easter Island story is that this pinprick of an island in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean was first populated in the fifth century, but growth of the population and “ideological pathology” that consumed the islanders with building the famous heads ruined the island. I wrote: “The building of these images became ever more competitive and extravagant, and trees were felled to aid the building faster than they could be replaced. By 1400 the trees and tree pollen had all gone, and, as Wright describes it, ‘the people who felled the last tree could see it was the last, could know with complete certainty that there would never be another. And they felled it anyway.’”

The story has a natural appeal to pessimists and seems to fit neatly with how we are now destroying ourselves on a global scale. The story has been told again and again with variations and has achieved the status of a legend and allegory. As with all archaeology the story has been put together from fragments of evidence, and it’s possible to create very different stories from the same fragments; and when the fragments are so scarce the discovery of a new fragment can change the whole story.

The Dutch author Rutger Bregman tells a very different version of the story of Easter Island in his best-selling book Humankind: a Hopeful History The core argument in his book is that human beings are not naturally selfish, cruel, and addicted to war, as the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued, but rather kind, thoughtful of others, helpful, and peace-loving. His argument is supported by growing evidence from archaeology of how humans lived before “civilisation” arrived and anthropological study of peoples living apart from the modern world. Bregman supports Rousseau’s concept of the “noble savage” corrupted by civilisation rather than the much more widely accepted concept of Hobbes that the life of prehistoric people was “nasty, brutish, and short.”

One of the ways that Bregman makes his case is by revisiting well known stories that seem to support Hobbes. For example, he undermines William Golding’s well-known novel Lord of the Flies that shows how a group of boys left on an island degenerate to killing each other by finding a real story of boys stuck on an island who supported each other, survived, and remain friends decades later.

It’s in that spirit that he revisits the Easter Island story, starting with a visit to Jan Boersema, a Dutch scientist with a different version of the story. Boersema had read the original account by the Dutch sailor, the Jacob Roggeveen who was the first European to visit Easter Island, in 1722. According to the story told by Diamond and Wright, Roggeveen was supposed to have discovered a few impoverished, starving survivors who were eating each other. In fact he wrote in his account at the time that the Easter Islanders were friendly and healthy in appearance, with muscular physiques and gleaming white teeth. 

Much of the story told by Diamond and Wright originated with Islanders recounting the story of their island, with its supposed war and cannibalism, to Katherine Routledge, who visited the island in 1914. But they were describing oral histories centuries old—not reliable, in other words. It would be like us having to say what happened in Europe hundreds of years ago without written records.

The decline of the Islanders is attributed to Bregman not to overpopulation, war, and “ideological pathology” but to slavery, smallpox, and rats that destroyed the forests. He certainly shows severe inconsistencies in the story told by Diamond and Wright, and he also provides convincing if less dramatic, and even familiar, reasons for the decline. He describes as well the survival of the Islanders after the rats had destroyed the trees through ingenious innovations in farming.

Bregman is clear that he doesn’t dispute that the climate crisis is a severe threat to humanity, but instead of drawing from the Easter Island story a message of inevitable decline he draws a very different message: “The real story of Easter Island is the story of a resourceful and resilient people, of persistence in the face of long odds. It’s not a tale of impending doom, but a wellspring of hope.” Perhaps we can survive the climate crisis.

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.

Competing interests: None declared.